I had dreamed of cruising since the third grade. I was fascinated with cruise ships growing up. I read nearly every cruise line's brochure cover to cover. I begged my parents to take me on a cruise, but at the time our family couldn't afford to go on one, so the closest I ever got was the pier in New York. Mom would always say "when you get your own job and start making your own money, then you can take your cruise." Fast forward fifteen years. I'm a year and some change out of college and into the working world. I now have time for my first post-college vacation. So of course a cruise came to mind!
I had originally planned on this as being a single-oriented vacation for myself. I booked a room on the Carnival Fascination for the sailing for Halloween 2007, not through any sort of "single's" group or anything, but just myself on a cruise that is known for having people my age on it. But alas, between booking and sailing, I began what has been a great relationship with my girlfriend, and when it seemed like we were going strong, I rebooked. As she's a schoolteacher, we rebooked for the week of her spring break.
Took Amtrak's "Silver Meteor" from the colder environs of the New York Metropolitan Area and got into Miami 45 minutes early. From there we got a cab to the Greenview South Beach hotel, where we got a good night's sleep (albeit at the expense of taking part in South Beach nightlife) for cruise morning. Cruise morning was spent on Miami Beach, walking around the beach and the city, taking in the sights. At check-out time we hailed another cab for the cruise terminal, and got to the port around 12:45.
Check-in was a big process. Lots of long lines, but Carnival seemed to be making a really good effort to prevent the lines from being longer. They had over 30 windows open for check-in, and assigned everyone into zones by the order in which they arrived, calling zones up to the check-in queues as the previous zone completed check-in. The terminal was modern and clean, yet despite being past security, the flat-screens over the check-in counter asked customers to not take pictures in the terminal. It took us about an hour to make it from the beginning of check-in to the ship, but the wait was but a small blip of our cruise.
Our stateroom, M211, was great. While the Fascination may not yet have completed the "Evolutions of Fun" refurbishment program, our cabin was very nicely done, with the most comfortable bed I have slept in in a long time. Everything was new and clean. This was my first cruise, and I was quite impressed at a hotel-like place so large constructed with zero plaster. The hallways were lined with murals of old ocean liners--the Mauritania, Rex, and Titanic (that last one I was sort of surprised at, but hey, if it were still around today it would be owned by Carnival).
After settling into the cabin, we went to the Coconut Grove Bar and Grill on Lido Deck for lunch. The New Yorker in me was pleasantly surprised to find lox and cream cheese bagels available at the deli, and by 3 PM we were enjoying lunch at the tables on the Lido Deck aft. We finished just in time to return to our cabin for our lifejackets for the drill, which went well (although I somehow had a station "E" lifejacket in my room when our room was designated station "D").
Leaving Miami, we spent the first night exploring the ship. I lost $30 in the Casino Royale playing slots, but the house winning is to be expected in any establishment of gaming, and I knew when to draw the line. We enjoyed dinner in the Sensation dining room, where we had the first seating. I dressed in a button-down shirt and my suit pants (because I wanted to pack light and skip the khakis), but felt a little too dressed up when I got there. Most others were wearing golf t-shirts and khakis, if not jeans (I later found out Carnival relaxed their dinner dress code around the time of our cruise). The food wasn't bad, but wasn't something I'd write home about. The wait staff was very attentive whenever they were within earshot of our table, though sometimes it would take a few minutes before we would see them near our table. We were seated next to a young family from Trinidad, who were already discussing switching to the later seating as they sat with us the first evening (which can be taken in many ways, but it sounded like they already were trying to do this). We called it a night early, as our call in Key West was early the next morning.
The cruise staff was friendly. I had read reviews in the past which made it sound like the crew on this ship was indifferent towards the customers, but I found them to be nicer than the staff at many of the hotels I have stayed in. I have left out crewmember names only because I am not that great at remembering names.
We woke up before sunrise, and saw the lights of Key West as we were approaching. It was quite a sight. While I haven't cruised before, I have spent many a night riding trains around the US, and one of my favorite things to do overnight was to stare out the window and watch the lights of America twinkle by. Here I was, my first morning on a cruise ship, and I felt a similar effect watching the lights of Continental America's southernmost point twinkle by. Sunrise seemed timed perfectly with our arrival--and breakfast, which we had at the Coconut Grove.
We disembarked about an hour after docking, with only a short line. After getting the trolley into town, we walked down Duval Street to the Southernmost Point in the Lower 48, and stopped by Ernest Hemingway's house, US Route 1's Zero Milepost and a couple stores before getting Cheeseburgers in Paradise at the original Margaritaville for lunch. The weather was chilly for Key West but, warmed up as we got closer to leaving time. Great for us, since we spent a great afternoon playing mini-golf on the Sun Deck. Dinner was formal night, and we got out pictures taken on the grand staircase before heading off to the Sensation Dining room. We were once again seated next to a family, this one from Ohio. We had a pretty nice conversation together, before excusing ourselves in order to make the 8:30 PM show, "Far from Over," a tribute to the '80s, which was a great memory of what I heard on the radio growing up, with some very, very tasty strawberry margaritas to boot!
The next day was Calica, the port for Playa Del Carmen, Mexico. We signed up for the excursion for SNUBA at Paamul Beach, so we needed to disembark when the ship first docked. There was a really long line for just one open door, so disembarking was a bit chaotic, but we managed to get off the ship and onto the bus for our connection in decent season.
Calica is a port only, there is no town within walking distance of the port. However, everything--Playa Del Carmen, Paamul, and even some places we didn't go like Xcaret, are all within 10 minutes by bus or cab from Calica. The tour guide on our bus to SNUBA was very friendly. I'm bad at remembering names (as you may have noticed by this point), but he was cracking jokes and did a great job explaining our trip. We got to Paamul Beach and were given a brief orientation before going into the water. SNUBA is a cross between snorkeling and SCUBA diving. You don't have to be certified, but you go with an instructor who is. I had some difficulty at first related to my mask, but the instructor swapped masks with me and the excursion was great, the instructor took us into about 20 feet of water and we ended up in a school of fish before long. Returning to the beach, we had about an hour to spend on the beach, and had a mid-afternoon snack of some of the best quesadillas we've ever had! Alas, all good things must end, and shortly after 5 PM (ship time/Eastern time, which is about 2 hours ahead of local time), the bus came to take us back to the ship.
We dropped off our beach things once we got back to the ship, then headed off again for dinner in Playa Del Carmen. The taxis have quite a business between Calica and Playa del Carmen, with a flat rate of $13. We picked up some souvenirs and ate dinner at Senor Frog's, a spring-break themed restaurant and bar right on the water. We made it back to the ship about an hour before departure.
Our "Fun Day" at Sea was laid back and a lot of fun. We went up to the Lido deck and played Scrabble (which we brought) while sipping drinks at one of the tables near the deck chairs. Early that afternoon, one of the chefs carved an ice sculpture on deck in front of everyone on Lido deck, and posed for pictures before carting it off to the freezers for the midnight buffet. We spent some time on the sun deck, and had our last dinner at the Coconut Grove. We wanted to go dancing in the Diamonds are Forever disco, but the disco was empty on this sailing. I figured that this was due to this particular sailing being primarily a family cruise, where everyone was either a teenager who had to leave the lounge at 10 PM or a parent, few of whom wanted to dance, and there were few of us twentysomethings on this particular sailing. I wonder what the disco is like other times of the year (such as the late fall when I originally booked to go on my own).
Arrival in Miami was around 6 AM. Disembarkation for customers who carry their own luggage (we packed light so we did) started before 7. We decided to try and be the last ones off the ship (last call is around 9:30), since a friend was meeting us and was busy early in the day. We ate breakfast with a family from New Jersey, and packed up to disembark. We turned on the TV to see the weather, and were somewhat surprised to find the "Local" news being broadcast on the ship was actually a channel from Denver, CO! While it didn't give us the weather in Miami, it was an interesting thing to watch. Disembarkation itself consisted of a long line to customs, but once we got to the front of the line, the process was quick.
I would say overall that this Carnival cruise was a good vacation. The crew was friendly and the ship had enough great stuff for the cruise, but we weren't being spoiled rotten. It's a good value for the money, and I look forward to cruising again after my great experiences on this first vacation.